Chelsea no longer part of Premier League's duopoly
Chelsea and Manchester United have dominated the English Premier League championship for so long that it seems strange only one of the teams are in the title hunt as they go into tomorrow's showdown at Stamford Bridge.
You have to go back eight years to the Arsenal Invincibles to find the last title winners apart from Chelsea or United, but that duopoly is on the verge of breaking up as new challengers emerge in the shape of Manchester City and Tottenham. United, of course, could triumph again, but Chelsea aren't going to come close this season and that has robbed tomorrow's match of its usual make-or-break significance.
Chelsea had the upper hand over United during Jose Mourinho's reign, both in the title race and in the individual showdowns, with a record of only one defeat in 10 meetings. But the pendulum has swung firmly back to United in recent seasons, as they have had a 50 per cent rate against Chelsea and lost only four out of 14 since Mourinho's departure.
Three of the defeats for United have been at Stamford Bridge, but the fortress has shown signs of cracking this season and Chelsea will have to improve if they are to patch up their home form. With Andre Villas-Boas committed to attack, Chelsea in some respects have the worst home record among the Premier League's big six (the highest number of defeats and goals-against)
Chelsea have had only two home clean sheets under Villas-Boas - the first against struggling Wolves and the other, somewhat fortuitously, against Martin O'Neill's Sunderland - and that does not bode well against United.
Ferguson's team have won eight out of 10 when scoring on the road, with two draws, and their only away defeat was in the shutout at Newcastle - probably their worst league display of the season. Chelsea can't expect them to be that bad again and will find it difficult to contain the United attack.
The encouraging aspect for Chelsea is that they have scored in every home game, although overall the goals have dried up in recent weeks. Tuesday's 1-1 at Swansea was the eighth time in their last nine games against top-flight opposition that they scored one or none - they have won only two of those low-scoring matches, which again suggests they will struggle against United unless they raise their game.
The clincher is that United have performed much better than Chelsea in elite games this season. United have won four out of six against the other members of the big six, with one defeat (the 6-1 at home to neighbours City at their rampant best), while Chelsea have lost three out of five.
Admittedly, Chelsea's sole win against a big-six team was 2-1 at home to Manchester City, but they have lost their other two home matches in that category (5-3 against Arsenal and 2-1 against Liverpool). Similar generosity by the Chelsea defence is likely to be punished by United, who rate the handicap pick.
Liverpool v Tottenham on Monday night is the other big attraction on the Premier League programme and the match is well set up after both teams scored three goals in their league victories on Tuesday night.
The 3-0 victory at Wolves continued Liverpool's resurgence since Kenny Dalglish was fiercely critical of his team following their capitulation against Bolton. Liverpool have responded with three big wins and, as well as carrying their cup form into the Wolves match, Andy Carroll's goal could be another spark for Dalglish.
Tottenham have also bounced back well from recent disappointment - the home draw with Wolves and heartbreaking defeat at Manchester City - and they are still in the title fray after the 3-1 midweek home win over Wigan.
As the only Premier League team to have won at Anfield since Dalglish's return, Tottenham deserve plenty of respect but have a little to prove after losing both away games so far against the big six (albeit at the two Manchester clubs). This is a tight game to call but Liverpool at home have the edge.
Manchester City's dip in form became more troubling with the midweek defeat at Everton and it is vital that they take the opportunity to reopen a three-point lead tonight, with United not in action for another 24 hours.
Until their first defeat, 2-1 at Chelsea on December 12, City were averaging 2.71 points per game but since then the average has slipped to 1.78. At least their home form has remained strong, with a perfect record from 11 games, and clearly they should be too strong for Fulham.
The concern for Roberto Mancini is that opposing teams have worked out how to suffocate his creative players and he has yet to come up with a counter-solution. Fulham are one of the better-organised teams at the lower end of the table - as they have proved with 1-1s at Chelsea and Arsenal - and they will be no pushover.
On a weekend of limited betting opportunities, Sunderland and QPR look good-value bets to continue their improving form under new management. Sunderland's only defeats under O'Neill have been away to Tottenham and Chelsea, both by a single goal, and they are worth backing on the handicap at Stoke.
QPR are starting to pick up under Mark Hughes and their attack looks more threatening after the transfer window signings of Djibril Cisse and Bobby Zamora.
Their odds against Wolves are fair based on form, but the potential is there for QPR to defy them.
TOP 5 BETS
1 QPR home win
Likely to improve with a better manager and better players
2 Derby home win
Great chance to heap misery on their bitterest rivals
3 Wolfsburg on handicap
Solid home form will be a test for Monchengladbach
4 Cagliari on handicap
Visit to bottom club a good chance to build on midweek win
5 Palermo home win
Rank third in Serie A on home form
QPR, Sunderland, Burnley, Derby, Wolfsburg, Cagliari, Palermo